The Force isn't merely awakening on the big screen. It's also returning to the video game realm.
"Star Wars: Battlefront" publisher Electronic Arts and Swedish developer DICE showcased their next-generation rendition of the "Star Wars" multiplayer shooter Friday at Star Wars Celebration, the annual fan extravaganza celebrating the sci-fi franchise.
The new iteration of "Battlefront" takes place amid the conflicts of the original film trilogy and is scheduled for release Nov. 17 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC.
"Battlefront" will focus on frenzied shoot-outs between up to 40 players portraying Rebel Alliance and Galactic Empire forces. In a demonstration of the game's multiplayer mode, a team of jetpack-equipped rebels were shown carving their way through the woodsy Endor while Stormtroopers charged at them on foot, on speeders and within walkers, including a hulking AT-AT war machine.
Other locales teased in game footage included the snowy Hoth, sandy Tatooine and gooey Sullust, a lava-spewing planet referenced in 1983's "Return of the Jedi," as well as many "Star Wars" games and novels, but rarely ever seen. "Battlefront" won't solely be centered on expendable ground troops. The game will reward sharpshooters with the ability to embody such iconic characters as bounty hunter Boba Fett and Sith baddie Darth Vader on the battlefield.
"You can storm in as the Dark Lord himself," said "Battlefront" design director Niklas Fegraeus. "You can wield a lightsaber. You can Force choke the rebel scum, which is fun. Basically, you are the boss of the battle. This means that you, as Vader, can lead your team to victory — if you play well."
The action will also take to the skies with players engaging in dogfights with TIE Fighters, X-wings and the Millennium Falcon, though the developers were coy about how battles would alternate between ground and air combat.
"We wanted it to feel authentic to this universe," said "Battlefront" executive producer Patrick Bach. "You can get into these vehicles, from speeder bikes to X-wings, TIE fighters, AT-STs, AT-ATs. There's a wide range of vehicles that we wanted to realize. The difficulty with a game is that they need to be balanced with the troops on the ground."
Electronic Arts' walled-off booth at Star Wars Celebration contains one of the show's best-kept secrets, a lengthy video of the forthcoming Star Wars: Battlefront video game. The booth interior, which we were not allowed to take photos of, is designed to look like a Rebel Alliance briefing room, complete with a command terminal in the middle, and tiered seating for the pilots, soldiers, and less-important game journalists like myself. The setting screamed classic trilogy, and was the perfect fit for the demo DICE had on hand: a gameplay slice recreating the Battle of Endor from the film, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.
The demo shows off the advancements of DICE's Frostbite engine, and clearly illustrates what players can expect when the game launches on November 17 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. Here's what we saw:
All is quiet on Endor, but the Rebel Alliance troops patrolling the forest floor don't anticipate it will remain this way for long. They are alert, fingers on triggers, heads swiveling frantically, waiting for the Galactic Empire to emerge from the thick forest foliage. The trees stretch high into the air, their canopy blocking out most of the mid-day sunlight, and knee-high plants give the nerves no reprieve as they sway gently in the breeze.
The demo is seen through the eyes of one of the Rebel's foot soldiers. He's human, decked out in green attire, and his load out consists of a laser rifle, thermal detonators, and a spherical energy shield that appears to be similar in design to those used by the Trade Federation Droidekas. The soldier studies his surroundings intimately, checking most vectors – high and low – for Imperial movement.
An explosion deeper in the forest puts him and his crew in motion. One of his squad mates yells "speeders," which are on top of them as soon as the announcement is made. The speeders roar through the plants and off into the distance in a heartbeat. From this moment on, the action doesn't slow.
Shots are fired through the treeline toward the rebel troopers, and a squadron of stormtroopers pour out of the woods. Our trooper opens fire, downing several stormtroopers on a hillside. Each kill brings up "killstreak" experience points on the HUD, immediately connecting this game to DICE's other juggernaut franchise, Battlefield.
The laser blast from the Rebel trooper's rifle packs a punch, delivering a brief puff of smoke on the target's torso before the body collapses to the ground. Laser fire rips over head with the familiar flash seen in the original trilogy movies. The Rebel Alliance is making quick work of the stormtrooper onslaught, and is steadily moving forward across Endor's gorgeously realized terrain.
The density of the trees and the slopping landscape they occupy make sight lines difficult, and add intensity to the conflict. The Imperial attacks appear to be uncoordinated, with stormtroopers emerging from the brush with no support, and others in small squadrons of four to five soldiers. The Rebel Alliance, on the other hand, is fully coordinated, working together as a team (which all appear to be human-controlled in the demo).
One rebel soldier verbally alerts the squad of the first legitimate threat – an AT-ST lumbering awkwardly through the woods. The AT-ST is heavily armored, and our rebel trooper's laser fire doesn't appear to phase it (or the red health meter that appears below its name). The soldier audio is generated dynamically in game, and is not the chatter of the players.
The rebels spread out and open fire on the heavy unit, but again, there isn't much their standard weapons can do. Just when it seems like retreat or a thermal detonator toss may be in order, the AT-ST explodes, its metal frame soaring through the forest, flames eating away at what's left of the still standing legs. Ewoks can be heard celebrating, but they don't make an appearance in the demo. A rebel trooper landed a rocket blast on the AT-ST and it appears it only takes one hit to down it.
The Ewok's elaborate village is seen briefly, high up by the tree canopy. An Imperial trooper uses one of the Ewok's bridges as a vantage point, but our trooper, who is now wielding a sniper rifle, takes him out with one nicely placed shot. The rifle spits out a green spherical shot.
The rebels push the fight further into the forest, where our soldier locates a rocket launcher of his own near a log. The rocket launcher is represented as a blue glowing icon, one of many "power-ups" that players can stumble upon in the environment.
Ascending a hill, we see a battle in a ravine 30-feet below, with rebel troopers in shields (just like the droideka's) making short work of Imperial ground troops. The Imperial laser blasts ripple helplessly against the glowing, blue energy bubbles.
Further into the forest, our trooper spies an AT-AT a good 200 feet away. His squad is quick to sound off on the trouble they are racing towards. Again, laser blasts don't do much against this heavily armored vehicle, which oddly was not a part of the battle in Return of the Jedi, yet was clearly seen patrolling the radar dish prior to the fight.
Perhaps we're seeing what happened to it here. Our rebel trooper dashes off to the walker's left, where a conveniently placed uplink station awaits. The walker is facing him, but our trooper stands his ground, and the player controlling him holds down a button on the controller to establish a connection with a satellite network. The process takes a good five to seven seconds, plenty of time for the walker to get off a shot, but it doesn't send any fire his way.
When the uplink is established, our rebel trooper orders a bomber strike. Rather than running away to safety, the rebel soldier sprints to the left side of the walker, and then through its legs. As he cuts beneath it, the walker takes a step forward, it's giant feet inches away from achieving a quick kill.
The scale of the walker is impressive, every bit as looming as it was when Luke bravely runs beneath one in The Empire Strikes Back. The sound of the walker's joints is identical to that of the film.
Seconds after the rebel trooper is free of the walker, he looks up to see two or three Y-Wings zip by overhead, delivering a direct hit to the walker, which, like the AT-ST, explodes immediately. The detonation is noisy and dangerous, sending huge chunks of metal hurling toward our solider and others nearby. The AT-AT stands its ground for a few seconds, on fire, then its front two legs buckle, sending its head and the rest of the body to the ground.
At this point, the player controlling the soldier changes the viewpoint from first-person to third, something players can freely do at any time during gameplay. The character model is nicely animated, his head apparently tracking potential enemy movement.
This AT-AT surprisingly wasn't the end of the fight - it was just the last line of defense between the rebels and an Imperial bunker. Rebel troopers pour into this diminutive interior space haphazardly. The bunker is every bit as beautifully detailed as the forest, complete with a mouse droid scurrying in a panic on the floor.
The troopers rush around a corner to a crossing where, a teammate is grabbed by an invisible hand, picked up off of the ground, and tossed into metal piping, his body slumping over dead.
Before our solider turns his head, we heard a familiar breath drawn. A slow turn to the right reveals Darth Vader. His saber is glowing dangerously red, and he's just 10 feet away, looking menacing and ready to win this war by himself.
Our soldier fires off a few laser shots, but Vader blocks them with ease. Vader draws near and the demo ends.
Nicklaus Fegraeus, DICE's designer director for Star Wars Battlefront, says players get the chance to suit up as villains like Lord Vader by obtaining power-ups scattered on the maps. He went on to say that these encounters play out like boss battles. The power-ups range from shields, the ability to pilot a walker, or other things.
Fegraeus briefly talked about dog fighting in X-Wings and TIE Fighters and said that flight will play a large role in the game, but didn't go into specifics as to how these aerial conflicts will unfold or control.
The demo was heavily scripted and was not played live in front of us, but was an impressive first showing. For two years, DICE has stressed the desire to create an authentic Star Wars experience, and that's exactly what they delivered in this first demo. It had the look of a classic trilogy battle.